The ordinary

Sunday Evening

I wish there was something special to write about worship this morning, but it was all quite ordinary. Yes, we watched the slideshow from our summer program and thanked our youth director for her extraordinary work – so there were images of happy kids and crafts and tales of chimes and songs. And, yes, we had an accordionist for our special music this morning, taking up hymns and songs we are likely to hear this week of the Fourth of July. And, yes, there was laughter and heartfelt prayer and children for the children’s message and wonder of God’s invitation to come to his table and share the bread that is the sign and promise and dawning reality of that day when all creation shall be gathered to one table.

But it was also ordinary. A simple summer service in which the community gathers for a host of different reasons: some because of friends, some because of habit, some because they have found a new congregation with a message that speaks to them, some because they had tasks to do – from working the sound board to making coffee.

Worship is ordinary. And yet is also extraordinary. It is like the roses in the flowerbeds around the patio near the parish office. Always there. Always blooming. Always ordinary yet wondrous in their beauty if you stop and see.

Its not just that there is beauty in the ordinary. It is that all existence is extraordinary. The brilliance of the clouds against the sky. The courage and faithfulness of a blind and deaf dog. The love of his family for an animal of no economic value. The laughter of children. The kindness of strangers. The sharing of the peace. Ancient texts that still speak to our human condition and the divine promise. The aroma of morning coffee. The pleasure of a simple dinner. The crickets in the evening. Fresh corn on the cob. The smell of fresh basil. Rosemary. Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. The sound of a child plinking out the melody line of Jesus Loves Me on the piano.

We are surrounded by extraordinary goodness. We don’t really need fireworks. We need to feel the grass between our toes and the ocean lapping at our feet. We need to feel the cool breeze in the evening and the hand of a loved one in our own. We need the connection of family and friends and the reminder that such bonds should tie the whole human family.

Even where terrors seem to govern, there is goodness waiting. If we will see it. If we will be open to it. If we will live it.

Worship is ordinary. But it is oh so much more than ordinary, for it bids us to see that love and life reverberate through all existence and summons us to join the song.

Photo: dkbonde

Palms and Passion

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Watching for the Morning of April 9, 2017

Palm Sunday / Sunday of the Passion

A noble dying, a shameful death. A royal claim upon the city, and a rejection of that claim. The cries of Hosanna are not sounds of praise, but pleas for aid and deliverance made to the passing king – but then the crowd will cry for blood. Sunday is both. Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday. The festive gathering and procession to church with palm fronts waving and the fabulous hymn “All Glory Laud and Honor,” and the gut-wrenching story of a mob in the night and fleeing disciples and Rome determined to show this royal claimant the true power and might of empire.

Our Lenten season is nearing its end. And though Easter is coming, the light that shines on Easter morning shines against the dark background of the human enterprise. We are a long way, yet, from living as children of God.

But the story is not only about human violence and power; it is also about the faithfulness of God and the fidelity of Jesus. He is willing to go to his death without breaking faith in the promise of God that the Spirit of God shall prevail. The reign of God shall dawn. The human heart shall be transformed. Grace and mercy shall govern all creation. Death shall give way to life.

So Sunday is joy and pensiveness and wonder. Sunday is celebration and mystery and thankfulness. Sunday begins with palms in our hands and then brings us to the table to receive the bread – the foretaste of the feast that will come.  It is a good and proper way to prepare us for the observance of the three days that carry us from Maundy Thursday into the first light of Easter.

(I apologize to those who follow this blog regularly that, during this season of Lent, it has been somewhat erratic. I have been focused primarily on the daily devotions for Lent we publish on the church website and at our Lent site.)

The Prayer for April 9, 2017

Almighty God, Holy and Wondrous;
trusting your promise, Jesus entered Jerusalem
knowing the path that lay before him.
Grant us a share of his Spirit
and the courage to follow his way of love;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for April 9, 2017

Procession with Palms Reading: Matthew 21:1-11
“The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” – Matthew’s account of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem.

Processional Psalm: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
“Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord… The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” – A song of salvation from an ancient festival in Israel as the community enters through the gates into the temple, rejoicing in God’s deliverance.

Reading from the prophets: Isaiah 53:1-6
“He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole.” – Isaiah’s vision of the suffering servant who bears the sins of the people.

Passion Reading: Matthew 26:1 – 27:61
“Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” – The passion narrative according to Matthew.

Readings as appointed for Passion Sunday

First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a
“I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” – One of the ‘servant songs’ from Isaiah describing a teacher who suffers, but trusts completely in God’s vindication.

Psalmody: Psalm 31:9-16
“I hear the whispering of many– terror all around!– as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.” – A cry from one who faces the threat of a violent death, yet expresses his complete trust in God. It echoes with themes of the passion.

Second Reading: Philippians 2:5-11
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.”
– An early Christian hymn reciting the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus. It is used by Paul to remind the community of the mind of Christ and to call them to abide in his Spirit.

Gospel: Matthew 26:14 – 27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAssisi-frescoes-entry-into-jerusalem-pietro_lorenzetti.jpg By Pietro lorenzetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Even Gloria

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Looking back to last Sunday

Isaiah 42:1-9

9See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.

It’s several days, now, since we celebrated the Baptism of Our Lord, but it is the first opportunity for me to look back. I got the phone call on Saturday that my stepmother was in critical condition and the flight I found meant that I would have to duck out of worship early on Sunday. The plan was to slip out after the blessing of the bread and wine, but the service went long and I slipped out at the sharing of the peace.

It is strange not to be able to be present as the service reaches its fulfillment at the table. Something is unfinished. We have heard the word. We have sung some of the music. We have even prayed the prayers. But the big prayer, the Eucharistic Prayer that recites the great history of God’s saving work from creation to this moment that is embodied in bread and wine – that prayer has gone unspoken. At least by me. I have not seen the bread broken as Christ was broken. I have not tasted the bread or caught that brief whiff of the wine that tells me that I, even I, am part of the great communion of heaven and earth begun in this Jesus.

And so as I flew to Colorado, as I rode to the hospital, as I entered the room to my stepmother’s bright eyes and delighted smile – and my own tears – it is as though we are still in the middle of worship. The service is not reached its fulfillment. The bread we await is yet coming. The new creation is ahead of us.

And as I join in the family gathering, as we weep the tears and tell the stories and take turns sitting at her side to hold her left hand (Dad had a firm, sometimes too firm, grip on her right hand), the feast to come awaits. Somehow living and dying are part of worship, part of the offering of all life back to God, part of the living in the light of grace and being sustained by the promise that the coming feast is come and yet coming. We are God’s children now. What we shall be is not yet revealed, but we are God’s children now. And Sunday I will stand among the congregation at the church where I once stood with Gloria and my father. And Gloria will be among the communion of saints in a manner beyond my comprehension. But the bread will be there. And the wine. And the promise. And the hope. And the mystery that all things are God’s and will be God’s forever. Even Gloria. Even we who weep.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALoojangu_v%C3%A4rvid_2.jpg By Kristoffer Vaikla (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

97,000

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Sunday Evening

John 10:22-30

27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.

File:Rom, Titusbogen, Triumphzug 3.jpgIt’s hard to know how many people perished when Judea rose in revolt and Titus came to crush the rebellion. Josephus says 1.1 million died in Jerusalem and 97,000 were carried off to slavery. We see their image carved into the Arch of Titus in Rome. They are in chains and the temple treasures held high as booty. It paid for the construction of the Roman Coliseum, where many more Jews and Christians would lose their lives.

When John’s community listens to this set of images about the good shepherd, the thieves and bandits, and the hirelings, Jerusalem’s tragic story is not that many years behind them.

‘Perish’ is a soft translation for a word that typically means to kill or destroy utterly. ‘Snatch’ seems like trying to grab something off my brother’s desk when I was ten, rather than the 97,000 taken away by force.

The hirelings are the Jerusalem elite who saved their skins. The thieves and bandits are the rebels acclaimed as messiahs (or condemned as terrorists) who seized control of the city and led the revolt. And the wolf is the Roman Army that came “to steal, kill and destroy.”

The history is brutal as revolutions often are. Consider the reign of terror in Paris or the ruthlessness of the Russian Revolution or the killing fields of Pol Pot or the ISIS beheadings in the ancient Roman theater in Palmyra. The Judean revolt was not different. But it ended with utter destruction and slavery.

Caiaphas will say that “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (11:50) Yet the truth of the matter is that the path followed by Caiaphas and the nation led to destruction. The path offered by Jesus would have led to life.

And still that path is offered to us every Sunday around a table with broken bread. But the path of wars and crusades seems too alluring. Compassion, mercy, justice, faithfulness – they don’t rouse the crowd like anger, hate and claims of divine approval. But they are life. Imperishable life.

Followers of Jesus where crucified and slain in the chaos of that war. Some by Rome and its allies. Some by their fellow countrymen. But they knew true life. And no one can ever snatch them from Jesus’ hand.

 

Image of the Arch of Titus: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARomeArchofTitus02.jpg By Alexander Z. (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Closeup of the Arch: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARom%2C_Titusbogen%2C_Triumphzug_3.jpg  By Dnalor 01 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 at (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/at/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Righteousness

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He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”

Friday

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

1After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”

Abraham was 75 when he left Haran, taking his wife, Sarah, and nephew, Lot, and leaving his father behind. He left, according to the narrative, in obedience to God who promised he would be the father of a great nation through which all families on earth would be blessed.

He went to Shechem, then to Bethel, then by stages to the Negev. During a famine he went down into Egypt and eventually returned, moving again in stages from the Negev back to Bethel. Tension between his household and the household of Lot caused them to separate, and Lot to move into the Jordan Valley and took up his fateful residence in Sodom. Lot became the victim of a war between the “kings” (chieftains of city-states) of the region and Abraham went to rescue him. After all this, “some time later” according to the text, we find him still childless.

“O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”

Three times he has heard the promise of descendants, and three times nothing has happened but the ongoing vicissitudes of life.

“O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”

I appreciate the frankness of his conversation. He can see no future but that his steward will end up with the estate. God, however, explains nothing. What God does is simply repeat the promise. And Abraham trusts it.

Trust is not a substitute for righteousness. Righteousness means fidelity to God and to others. Abraham has shown fidelity to Lot. Now he shows fidelity to God. He accepts God’s word.

Few of us have a vision such as Abraham’s. What we have is the promise of God mediated to us through the text of scripture and embodied in the water of baptism and the bread and wine of Holy Communion. They are the equivalent of the smoking pots: God’s covenantal promise made visible: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood…shed for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins.”

We don’t know how we will get to the fullness of the promise of the world brought into the blessing of God. But we accept and live by the promise. And it is righteousness.

 

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHeavens_Above_Her.jpg By Ian Norman (http://www.lonelyspeck.com) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The touch of God’s mercy

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Sunday Evening

Psalm 71:1-6

2In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me;
incline your ear to me and save me.
3Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me,
for you are my rock and my fortress.

There was a woman at the altar rail deep in prayer as I came with the bread of Holy Communion. We are set up so that the altar rail surrounds three sides of the altar and the servers can walk in a continuous circle around the altar, serving each person – with the spaces emptying and filling again by the time we come around again.

We have kneeling pads so people can kneel if they wish. And occasionally someone is in prayer when I come with the bread. But the prayers are usually brief – or they become aware of my presence and open their hands. Today this woman didn’t look up.

Open hands are a symbol that a person wishes to receive. Hands closed together are a sign that a person wishes only to receive the blessing. But were these closed hands or folded hands? Was she awaiting a blessing or deep in prayer and not yet ready for the bread?

I have asked people before whether they wished to receive – especially on those times when their hands were not really open but not completely closed. These are often visitors not aware of the routine we follow in this place. And I have waited for people to finish praying. But this person was deep in prayer.

Part of my brain was trying to decide what to do. But my heart was with this woman’s cry to God. And before my brain made up its mind what to do, my hand reached out to give her a blessing. Whether she wanted to receive communion or not, she seemed to need the touch of a human hand making the sign of the cross on her forehead, reminding her that she belonged to a gracious God.

The bread does that too, and more. Much more. But there is something about the touch of another and the sign of the cross that has great power.

We need more than words in worship. We need to hear music. We need to taste the bread and smell the wine. We need the handshake that goes with the word of peace. We need to stand and sit and kneel. We need even to dance – though Lutherans don’t do that much, you can occasionally catch them swaying. It is more than our minds that need to feel the touch of God’s mercy.

 

Woman praying at the Western Wall.  Photo: By Shoshanah (Flickr: 2008-06-25 00212) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

An occasion for dancing

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Sunday Evening

Luke 3:1-18

5“Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
(Luke, quoting Isaiah 40)

There was a little girl who danced in the aisle during the Eucharistic Prayer this morning, the prayer that recites the story of God’s saving work in the world, culminating in Christ Jesus and the gift of the bread and wine. It proclaims the Words of Institution. It invokes the Spirit. It begins and ends with singing, including the Sanctus, (“Holy, Holy, Holy” that Isaiah heard the seraphim sing in the presence of God). It anticipates that day when all things are made new. As we recited the story, she danced – with joy, with freedom, with utter unselfconsciousness. It was perfect.

It was also the day of her first communion.

There is something deeply sacred and profound about Holy Communion. Here, we remember Jesus and that night in which he was betrayed. Here, we are again at the table where Jesus washed feet and broke the bread. Here, we are once again in the garden where the high priest’s thugs snatch him in the dark. Here, we are once again face to face with the mystery of the cross and the mercy that forgives even this – the complete rejection and murder of the perfectly faithful one.

But it is also a moment of perfect joy, for here we are on the hillside with the 5,000 as a child’s lunch becomes a feast for all. Here, we are at Cana in Galilee where water becomes the finest wine. Here, we are with the disciples at Emmaus where Jesus revealed himself in the breaking of the bread. Here, we are at the Sea of Galilee with the risen Christ preparing breakfast and bidding us come and eat. Here, we are singing the song of the angels and anticipating the day when the tree of life bears fruit every month and its leaves are for the healing of the nations.” Here, we are welcomed to the wedding banquet that has no end.

Here, we hear the promise that prison doors are opened and lives set free. Here, we hear the promise that troubled hearts are calmed and broken hearts made whole. Here, we are invited to hear the song of the angels. Here, we are invited to hear the music of the spheres: the world and all its creatures belongs to God. It begins in perfect goodness and ends in perfect goodness – because God is perfect goodness.

It is an occasion for dancing.

 

Image: By http://www.mariusfiskum.no (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Let us hold fast

Saturday

Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25

Ryssby Church 223Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

There are too many bodies in the streets of Paris. Too many bodies in the towns and cities of Syria. Too many bodies in the streets of Iraq.

There are too many hungry children, too many infected with curable diseases, too many without clean water.

There are too many who live in fear, too many who face violence, too many imprisoned by hate.

There are too many.

We should be better than this. That’s part of it. We should be better than this. Our most fundamental humanity is the ability to love, to share, to laugh, to sing, to dance, to break bread together. To form bonds of friendship and fidelity. To show compassion. To help, to heal, to teach. To pray. To touch and be touched by what is holy and beautiful and good.

“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering,” writes the author of Hebrews, “for he who has promised is faithful.”

Let us hold fast. When bodies lie on the ground, let us hold fast. When fear runs rampant, let us hold fast. When anger stirs towards vengeance, let us hold fast. When outrage turns towards hate, let us hold fast.

For he who has promised is faithful. God is faithful. God has promised. God has born witness to the world he creates – a world of life not death, of mercy not revenge, of truth not falsehood, of love not hate. God is faithful to that promise. Let us hold fast.

“And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” Let us consider how to call one another into this world God creates. Let us consider how to prod one another to do the right thing, to be the right thing. Let us consider how to encourage one another to generosity, to compassion, to kindness, to care and to truth. Let us consider. Let us provoke.

And let us not neglect “to meet together, as is the habit of some.” For it is in meeting together, in seeing faces, in shaking hands, in sharing prayers, in singing praise, in breaking bread, in hearing the Word, that we are held fast in him who is the world’s true life.

I have also written a reflection on Paris, Jesus, violence, and the human heart entitled “With twelve baskets left over” at Jacob LimpingAnd I am part of those who meet together at Los Altos Lutheran Church. You are welcome to join us in body or spirit.

 

Photocredit:dkbonde

He will swallow death

Thursday

Isaiah 25:6-9

File:A destroyed iraqi main battle tank on the Highway of Death.JPEG6On this mountain
the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food,
a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow,
of well-aged wines strained clear.
7And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.

The choice of that word ‘swallow’, “he will swallow up death forever,” is haunting when laid alongside the promise of a banquet where all people shall come to eat in peace. We will drink well-aged wines. We will eat choice meats. God will eat death. God will devour the devourer.

It has been a very long time in this country since war stole food from the mouths of the innocent. Sherman’s march to the sea is infamous for its intentional policy of destroying food stocks. It was not the Confederate soldiers who would go hungry when Union soldiers burned the fields and stole the livestock. War has always been hard on civilians. There is a reason that social chaos (a blood red horse), famine (a black horse) and pestilence (a pale, jaundiced horse) ride behind the white horse of imperial conquest at the opening of the first of the seven seals in Revelation 6. Refugees, hunger, disease, the suffering of women and children, the aged and infirm, follow in the train of war.

To the people desolated by war and destruction, God speaks a promise: God will prepare a feast – and God will ingest the death.

God will take the sword. God will take the bullet. God will take the crown of thorns and the nails. God will take the spittle and the lance. God will take the grave – and God will devour the devourer.

The bread and wine of Holy Communion is a reminder of this promised banquet. It proclaims to us that God will gather all creation to dine at his table: a world at peace, a world made new, a world rescued, redeemed, healed. Our hearts rescued, redeemed, healed. But that small bit of bread and taste of wine also remind us what Jesus ate.

It is complicated that Eucharistic meal. It is the bread of heaven and the bread of tears. It is joy and fearful sorrow. It is gift and oh so terrible a price. It is our promised future brought to us today – but also that past alive again. We are at the table where feet were washed. We are at the table where promises of fidelity were made only to be broken. And we are at the shore where Jesus has breakfast waiting and reconciles us to himself.

It is complicated, this Eucharistic meal. And it is complicated, this feast of All Saints. There is joy and sorrow. There is the song of heaven and the sound of tears from wounds still raw. There is the vision of the New Jerusalem even as we remember those who died this last year. There is the promise of the resurrection even as the ashes of loved ones sit on the mantel or in little niches at the cemetery. There is a vision of a redeemed human community while we witness the death of refugees abandoned at sea in leaky boats. There is life even as we know death.

But death has been swallowed up. The stone rolled away. The veil lifted. And so we sing. Sometimes through our tears, but still we sing. For we are held in the promise: Death has been swallowed up in victory.

 

Photo: A destroyed iraqi main battle tank on the Highway of Death.  By Master Sgt. Kit Thompson (DF-ST-92-08142) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons